Urdu (?)-English vocabulary in Buddhist archeology and architecture

« previous post | next post »

"Archaeologists Uncover 2,000-Year-Old Buddhist Site In Pakistan", by Neil Bowdler, Radio Mashaal (2/3/21).

When I watched the embedded video in that article, it sounded to me as though the archeologists were speaking Urdu or something close to it (e.g., I heard them repeatedly use the word matlab  مَطْلَب  ["meaning; purpose; motive"; Hindi spelling मतलब]) and caught many other words that I recognized from my knowledge of Hindi-Urdu and Nepali, but I was astonished at how much English vocabulary was mixed into the language the archeologists were speaking.  Not only did they use a lot of English vocabulary, it was mostly not heavily accented with their local language.

Here are some of the English words and phrases that I heard in the interviews:  "important site development", "800 century year ago", "complex", "rainy season", "dwelling monks", "meetings", "religious", "philosophy", "schooling areas", "institute", "architecture", "Buddhism", "Buddhist site", "religious tourism… peace… harmony".  I cannot guarantee that this is a complete list of all the English words and phrases in the interviews (total length 3:38), nor that I have transcribed each and every item exactly the way they said it.  Still, this list should give a fairly good idea of the nature of the mixed language they are speaking.

Sunny Jhutti agrees that it's Urdu and says that the main speaker is a Pathan from the Peshawar area, and that he has a Hindki accent.  "Punjabi and Urdu have tons of loan words from Iranian, Arabic, and English."

Surendra Gambhir, who has a Ph.D in Linguistics and has taught courses in Hindi, Urdu, and Hindi rural dialects for more than three decades, and is an Associate Professor Emeritus of South Asian Studies at Penn, says that it is definitely not Urdu. "I did not understand a word of what they were saying."

Milind Ranade says:  "I guess it’s Pashto language; I may be wrong but it’s not Urdu, but pretty close to it. I assume the script is the same. As for the amount of English in the interview, it’s true with ALL Indian languages (except Sanskrit, of course). All are hybrids of English now. It’s a big subject for a discussion, and we should have it one day. I also would like to introduce you to my friend from Iran, Mr. Shekarchi. He has some extremely caustic views about it.


[Thanks to Daniel Waugh]


  1. Zora said,

    February 8, 2021 @ 10:48 pm

    Here in the Hawaiian islands, many people speak a local creole, Hawaiian Pidgin. This can be mixed with standard English as needed. I remember hearing a local guy, an accountant, talking to one of his aunties about her investments. He was speaking pidgin for the most part, full local accent, and mixing this with accounting terminology in standard English, no accent.

    Not just South Asia :)

  2. Keith said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 2:05 am

    Very interesting.

    The archaeologist's name is given at the beginning of the video, and googling for him finds a few very short articles in the mainstream press about this find, in which he is described as being the chief or lead archaeologist on the dig, run by "KP’s Directorate of Archaeology and Museums". I suppose you'd be able to find out more about him through academic journals and maybe he has a bio on a university web site.

    Just in the first thirty seconds or so of the video, I heard the following.
    "important site"
    "nineteen hundred, er, century year ago, almost two thousand year ago"
    "rainy season"

    His speech sounds very much like that of many bilingual people I know, who will pepper speech in language A with words from language B. Sometimes these "B" words will be terms of art for which no exact or brief equivalent exists in A. Sometimes there is an exact or brief equivalent, but it is simply B that trips off the tongue more readily.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 4:25 am

    I experienced much the same sensation while watching series one and two of Raja, rasoi aur anya kahaniyaan. Almost every speaker would use an English word or phrase, sometimes a whole sentence or two, in what was otherwise a Hindi narration. Non-Hindi speakers were subtitled and/over over-dubbed for the benefit of the Hindi-speaking audience at whom the series was targetted.

  4. cliff arroyo said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 6:38 am

    "watching series one and two of Raja, rasoi aur anya kahaniyaan. Almost every speaker would use an English word or phrase, sometimes a whole sentence or two, in what was otherwise a Hindi narration"

    What I remember from a bollywood movie or three a few years ago was how… disconnected the English was from the Hindi… it wasn't repeating anything or giving additional information (beyond a few pleasantries like 'please' and 'thank you' which apparently Indian languages don't have). They often seemed oddly performative – random interjections designed to put some English words in the dialogue for the sake of having some English words…

    Really…. grating too….

  5. Rodger C said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 8:00 am

    Is this, mutatis mutandis, what a 13th-century Englishman would have sounded like, speaking English in a country colonized by French-speakers? And is that why Modern English is the way it is?

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 8:22 am

    In the case of Raja, rasoi, …, in which the contributors spoke extempore, I don't think that there was anything "performative" in their use of English. More, it seemed to me, that using English intermixed with Hindi was now, for many Hindi (and other Indic language) speakers, just a normal part of everyday life.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 8:59 am

    @cliff arroyo

    "a few pleasantries like 'please' and 'thank you' which apparently Indian languages don't have"

    Around the time of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, the Chinese government promoted the use of English-style spoken Mandarin civilities. See Mary S. Erbaugh: "China expands its courtesy: Saying 'Hello' to Strangers," The Journal of Asian Studies, 67.2 (May, 2008), 621-652.

    Here is the abstract:

    Courtesy reveals fundamental judgments about who merits respect. Traditional Chinese courtesy rests on lifelong hierarchical bonds that are too clear to require constant verbal reinforcement. But strangers, women, peasants, migrant workers, and others often do not merit face work because they lack status, fall outside the network of insiders, or are politically taboo. Until very recently, European-style equivalents of “hello,” “please,” “thanks,” “sorry,” or “goodbye” existed only in impersonal-sounding translations restricted to brief contacts with foreigners. As Beijing steps back from the socialist revolution, it is promoting these “five courteous phrases” (ni hao, qing, dui bu qi, xiexie, zai jian) to expand courtesy to universal, reciprocal greetings. Popular acceptance of this “verbal hygiene” is spreading via rapid, urban service encounters in which one's connections are unknown. In this way, China's self-identity as an “advanced civilization” is being retooled in international terms.

    See also "'Have a good day!' in Mandarin" (9/5/12)

  8. James said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 10:06 am

    Milind is right, that is Pashto, and Radio Mashaal is the Pashto service of RFE/RL. Keith is also right that a fair number of those words are Buddhism-related things that the archaeologists would read about in English, and so maybe the English words would be closer to the tip of the tongue. The archaeologist also glosses in Pashto after most things like 'rainy season', 'region', 'dwelling', probably because he's aware that he's on Pashto media and journalists on Mashaal are careful to avoid 'non-Pashto' words, but for terms like 'monk', he struggles a bit and doesn't provide an equivalent in the end. For 'religious tourism, peace, and harmony', equivalents of course exist in Pashto but the state policies they're gesturing at are formulated in English; and the Pashto words I can think of would just not feel right in this context. So he doesn't seem to gloss those either. In any case everyday Pashto speaking in Pakistan draws heavily even on mundane English and Urdu words as well; all the people speaking are doing it. The student has a phrase that goes something like 'students khpal future ki plan kawlai shi' ('students can plan [what to do] in their future').

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 11:03 am

    I wonder how much of it a Pashto-speaking Afghan would understand.

  10. M. Paul Shore said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 2:57 pm

    A few observations:

    (1) Regarding the phenomenon of speakers of Indian languages interspersing their speech with English words, phrases, and sentences: Some linguist should do a survey of the percentage of interspersion among speakers of one of the important Indian languages, investigating how the percentage of interspersion correlates with educational level, income level, and the size and/or density of population in the area where the speaker resides. In some Indian films I've seen, the percentage of interspersion seems to approach 50%; but I'd tend to think that the practice is most likely minuscule or nonexistent in many remote, impoverished rural areas.

    (2) Around 1980, I heard, in a conversation between two young Taiwanese women living in the Boston area, the phrase "很 disgusting" ("hěn disgusting", meaning "very disgusting") applied to a person one of the women didn't like. I don't know why she chose to express the sentiment in that half-Mandarin, half-English form–did she feel the English word somehow captured her feelings better than its Mandarin equivalent, or was using the English word just an artifact of her process of assimilation to life in the Anglosphere?–but in any case I found that phrase to be quite amusing, and I've always wanted to be able to use it with someone who I felt would find it as amusing as I did; but I've never gotten to know such a person.

    (3) Back in the eighties, a girlfriend of mine who I'd seen several French movies with observed that pretty much every current French movie included one, and usually just one, phrase or sentence in English, a pattern that I think has continued to the present day. (It was also true, though she didn't include it in her observation, that pretty much every French movie included one, and usually just one, shot of female toplessness or full nudity, a pattern that's also continued to the present day; so I guess those two dissimilar dramaturgical gestures are presumed by the French film industry to be on a footing of roughly equal attractiveness to the French moviegoing public.) Now, in the twenties, vlogging-type videos by young French men and women seem to frequently contain switches into English for a word here or a phrase there–not "franglais"-type uses of words that have already been at least partially adopted into French, but brief excursions into the English language itself. I also get an impression that a similar propensity for switching into English may exist in German. Could these be the beginnings of respective phenomena like the one we see in India?

    (4) Regarding the "five courteous phrases": The first time I rode the Beijing subway, in late 2011, I kept saying "对不起 duì bu qǐ" ("Excuse me") whenever I'd bump into someone or get too close to someone; but after a few minutes I realized I was the only one saying it, so I stopped. Does anyone here know whether people are saying "对不起" on the Beijing subway now? (I can readily understand if they aren't, because a person might have to say it several dozen times or more when riding at a crowded time of day.)

  11. James said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 4:41 pm

    @Cory Lubliner, more or less any Afghan speaker who is online would probably understand all of it. This level of Pashto, Persian, Urdu, and English lexicon is ordinary, and add to that Turkic and Slavic awareness too. In my life I've never been to any place that is more lexically cosmopolitan than Kabul or the Afghan neighborhoods of Peshawar. As for people who are rarely online, I've met people who are monolingual in regional Pashtos, and not any standard, whose language still has about that much English. As for the things they're talking about, and the concepts that the words in the video (like 'monk') refer to, not all of those would be accessible on their own to monolingual speakers, by virtue of the social domains in question. That may be another reason why the archaeologist glosses most of the words immediately. That too doesn't feel odd to me. Once I was listening to someone talking about a bridge, in an idiosyncratic dialect, and he knew immediately that his word for 'bridge' was a bit different than other Pashto speakers would know, and so he was like 'Yeah, so we crossed the bridge…a bridge, you know? The thing where you have your path but the water has its path too, and you build your own path with materials, over the water's path? Bridge. So anyway we crossed the bridge…' I think that in a situation where languages are decentralized, and multiply colonized too, then this kind of lexical assimilation and adjustment happens a lot, and it's something I wouldn't even call code-switching or whatever. It's more like borderland life generally, and how it plays out in language.

  12. M. Paul Shore said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 5:41 pm

    A clarification to point (2) in my post above: As the students of Mandarin here know, "很 disgusting" could either mean "very disgusting" or just "disgusting", depending on how it's used within the larger grammatical structure of a given sentence. The sentence that I heard was "他 很 disgusting", which just means "He's disgusting"; but in my after-the-fact cherishing of the phrase, I've chosen to remember it as if she'd used it in its "very disgusting" meaning.

  13. Julian said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 10:41 pm

    @cliff Arroyo
    "… pleasantries like 'please' and 'thank you', which apparently Indian languages don't have."
    Cross-reference: 'no word for X'. Colour me sceptical.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2021 @ 11:39 pm

    Notice the amount of English these uneducated villagers are using: "Tribal People Taste Test Popular Tea Snacks"


  15. Guy said,

    February 10, 2021 @ 12:47 am

    Shukriya and Dhanyavad mean “thank you” in Urdu and Hindi, respectively, although English “thank you” and “thanks” have displaced them to a large degree.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 10, 2021 @ 5:29 pm

    From Surendra Gambhir:

    I am reproducing the relevant part of a message from someone in Peshawar. I hope it is helpful.

    "The narration is in a commonly spoken Pakistani Pashto, with no noticeable regional dialect, and a fair amount of English words. My best attempt at a free translation is as follows:

    This is a very important site and dates back 1900-2000 years, to the time of Kushan and Buddhists. The complex has many stupas and viharas. Viharas were used in the rainy season.

    Looking towards the top of the mountain you see dwelling cells for monks. In addition to this you will see, over there, an assembly hall. This was used for meetings, and teaching religion, philosophy and other schooling. It was an institute.

    The second narrator says, “My name is Fazal Azim and I have been with the Archeology Department for thirty years. We have been excavating in Swat for about a month and have found small stupas and viharas and a coin."

    The third narrator is a student of Archeology. He says that this site in the future will become very helpful for students and scholars, as they learn about the culture and architecture of the Buddhists of that period.

    The first narrator says that the KPK Archeology Department took the initiative to develop this project and they will continue with it for the sake of religious harmony, peace and education. We will be working on preservation and conservation.

    Swat became a district of North West Frontier Province (N.W.F.P.) or Sarhad in the 1970's. The province's name was changed to Khyber Pakhtunkhawa (KPK) in 2010."

RSS feed for comments on this post